Ubuntu: it’s a treasured Bantu word roughly translated as "unity." But "unity" doesn’t quite do it justice. Liberian peace activist Leymah Gbowee defined it as a concept meaning "I am what I am because of who we all are." During South Africa’s decades-long struggle against apartheid, ubuntu meant unity of purpose among the country’s black majority against a brutally oppressive system. It meant the assertion of humanity in the face of an inhuman system.
The sacred word resurfaced amidst South Africa’s planning for the 2010 FIFA World Cup, the most-watched sporting event in the history of the planet. This time, ubuntu was used quite differently in speeches and rallies held by the ruling African National Congress: it still meant unity, but this time it was used to inspire unity of purpose to stage such a mammoth undertaking. It meant, "Let’s show the world that an African country can do it just as well as any nation in the West." This time, it was ubuntu as pep talk. It was also used as an argument to silence people who dared ask uncomfortable questions. As Saleh, a youth activist in Johannesburg, said, "If someone stood up at a [council meeting] and said, ‘Why are we spending so much on stadiums? Why are we giving the police so many powers?’ we were told that we were violating the spirit of ubuntu." His friend Peter chimed in, “The World Cup is like a marvelous party, but what happens the next day when we’re hung over and the bill comes due?" We are seeing the ubuntu curdling far sooner than anyone could have predicted; anyone, that is, except the many who watched the multibillion-dollar stadium build upand expansion of police powers not with excitement but trepidation.
The 2010 World Cup was without question a major sporting success for South Africa. The gleaming fields opened on schedule, new airports welcomed scores of visitors and disparate groups of South Africans who usually self-segregate exalted together in public. But the party’s over. The country was recently hit with massive strikes involving 1.3 million public sector workers, including the teachers, civil service workers and health workers. The public sector strike contained a series of particularly shocking moments for South Africans and international observers. This included scenes of striking workers marching through a police line while sounding the World Cup’s iconic vuvuzela, only to be shot by the police officers’ rubber bullets. The strikes and rapid-fire erosion of the World Cup’s ubuntu speak to a serious political crisis facing South Africa’s scandal-plagued President Jacob Zuma and fissures between the ANC government and its base of support. The ANC has benefited greatly from its reputation as the freedom-fighters who led the liberation of South Africa from apartheid. But now, sixteen years later, as South Africa’s Patrick Bond has written, "The new apartheid in South Africa is economic apartheid." Case in point: in today’s South Africa, 1.9 million people, 15 percent of the total population, live in shacks. And 48 percent of South Africans live on less than 322 rand a month (about $42). This while the top twenty paid directors at companies listed on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange make 1,728 times the average income of a South African worker.
For a nation forged in a struggle against injustice, this situation is intolerable. Now the ANC finds itself in direct conflict with the very unions that constitute their spine. The ANC depends on a tripartite alliance between itself, the South African Communist Party and the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), which is behind the recent strikes. Zuma also enjoyed the backing of the ANC Youth League in his 2009 election bid, which raises a related problem. South African youth never knew apartheid and they can only evaluate the ANC on the services it has provided since 1994. If you’re a part of the new black middle class, one of the “Black Diamonds,” as they’re known, you probably have a positive view of the party. If you live in the townships or are a young member of COSATU and your existence has been defined by economic apartheid, it’s not enough.
Jacob Zuma has also attempted to ensure his popularity by reminding the populace that he is "100 Percent Zulu Boy." This is also not enough. A resurrection of ubuntu is on the agenda in South Africa. But it’s an ubuntu that could leave the ANC out in the cold—ubuntu against the ANC—as South Africa’s youth demand economic justice and strive to reclaim their country.